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Election Watch: A nation divided

A map showing proportions of non-tax payers

In the wake of Mitt Romney's 47 per cent comments, a map showing the percentage of people by state who do not pay income taxes spread quickly throughout the internet. The states with the highest number of filers were primarily blue, while those living in the Deep South were much more likely to be part of Mitt's imagined freeloading class "who would vote for the president no matter what".

The visual was somewhat misleading. It's true that the poorest states tend to be conservative, but the level of abstraction obscures deeper trends. The more money you make, the more likely you are to vote Republican, and the correlation is significantly higher in the poorest states. As such, a South Carolinian not paying income tax is a better bet to back Obama than a randomly chosen Palmetto Stater.

But there was something more insidious at play than a lack of analytical rigour. Liberals gleefully posting the map on their Facebook walls were implicitly perpetuating the maker-versus-taker meme, only with Southern conservatives replacing Obama voters as the ones not paying their fair share. There were enumerable problems with Romney's deeply misguided statement, but the fact that he didn't think to include "rednecks" amongst the 47 per cent certainly wasn't one of them. 

Similar sentiments have bubbled to the surface in the aftermath of Obama's re-election, in which the President cruised to victory yet lost by enormous margins in many of the red states. To be sure, conservatives often cast the first stone. Texas GOP official Pete Morrison compared Obama voters to "maggots," asking "Why should Vermont and Texas live under the same government?"

But while these sorts of comments are deeply offensive, I'm also not encouraged by some of the common liberal responses. Ha ha they're threatening secession; don't let the door hit you on the way out. Or, we'd be better off without them anyways. 

Obviously, no one's actually leaving the Union. But this tendency to speak of Arkansas or Mississippi or Alabama in such simplistic terms has pernicious effects. The poverty in Southern states becomes something to scoff at, or an example of the blue states' superiority, as opposed to a serious moral problem that should deeply concern all Americans. A Republican governor's threat to block the Medicaid expansion is a sign of a state's backwardness rather than a threat to the healthcare of millions of citizens.

There's a racial undercurrent as well. African Americans and other minority groups are a central part of the Democratic coalition, and liberals see themselves as concerned with the rights of these historically disenfranchised communities. But where is the highest concentration of African Americans? The South. And when you allow the Pete Morrison's to become the spokespeople for entire regions of the country, you turn your back on the voices and concerns of the people who don't share their views. The people who actually bear the consequences when Pete Morrison comes into power.

America is an incredibly diverse country with countless ways to 'slice and dice' its citizens along ideological lines. The North-South divide is only one of these. And we can seek to understand these divisions without creating unhelpful stereotypes that risk leaving us cold and indifferent to the plight of our fellow citizens.